Was Gagarin’s flight really the climax of US-Soviet space race?

Yuri Gagarin
RIA/Scanpix

Dr. Domantas Bručas, director of the Space Science and Technology Institute in Lithuania, said in an interview with LRT that the Soviet Union initially had a lead in the race with the United States, but the Americans later took over when they sent the first man to the Moon.

1961, when Gagarin orbited the Earth, was a charged moment in the world’s history. It is sometimes said that Gagarin’s flight was the climax of the space race between the US and the USSR.

I am not sure if that was the climax – one of the intermediary stages perhaps. The race had been going on for some time. On the one hand, the US and the USSR were competing in space exploration, and on the other, arms race between the two was just as fierce. Military technology, like rockets, was used in space exploration. We could say, therefore, that space race was one of the aspects of the arms race.

How important was sending a man into the Earth’s orbit in terms of space technology and space research?

It was doubtlessly very important in that it proved that a human can go to space. The technology itself, however, had been tested before, with dogs, guinea pigs, mice, mannequins sent to space. Gagarin’s flight was rather an important symbol, showing that a human could fly to space and survive, to share his sensations and experiences with others back on Earth.

How much credence should we give to suggestions that Gagarin was not in fact the first man that the Soviet Union sent to space, that there were others, but these missions were kept secret?

There are indeed conspiracy theories to that effect, but at least so far historians who research archives (which are open now), documents, and testimonies of cosmonauts and people who worked in space research have not found any evidence that anyone could have been sent to space before Gagarin.

When scientists talk about that mission now, they note that Gagarin’s flight and landing did not go all that smoothly, that there was much risk. Do you think that the Soviets rushed with sending a man to space?

Yes, definitely. There was rivalry between the two superpowers, both wanted to be the first, the best and all that. The flight did not go entirely smoothly, and many risky decisions and compromises were made before the flight, like ejecting the human from the landing capsule.

The USSR used this feat very effectively for propaganda. But three weeks later, the US responded by sending the first American, Alan Shepard, to space. Eight years later, in August 1969, the Americans landed on the Moon. Which do you think was the a more significant achievement, the first human in space or the first human on the Moon?

Hard to say. I think that landing on the Moon was the climax of the space race. On the other hand, landing on the Moon would not have been possible without the first human in space. So I think both events were crucial.

Meanwhile Shepard’s was a sub-orbit flight. Gagarin went higher and further. So the Americans were a little behind at that time.

Which nation is the leader of space research today?

Opinions differ on that issue, but I believe that the United States is the leader now. It has gone a much longer way than anyone else and is now developing space technology very intensively. Even the American private sector has joined in.

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